Like its title, this third novel by Peter Kimani waltzes between decades and characters to form a memorable family drama set against radical social changes in pre-independence Kenya.
The action begins in the first years of the 20th century with a conversation between two men on board the recently constructed “Lunatic Express” running from Mombasa to Port Victoria. The travellers, Ian Edward McDonald, owner of the Jakaranda Hotel in Nakuru, and the Reverend Richard Turnbull, are discussing the unknown paternity of a girl recently adopted by the preacher. The quest to discover the identity of this man shapes the rest of the narrative.
First, however, the reader is fast-forwarded to 1963 when the Jakaranda is now accepting black patrons for the first time. They come mainly to watch Rajan Selim and his band. One night, Rajan enjoys a spontaneous kiss with Mariam, a superior groupie (her lips taste of lavender) who then promptly disappears. He eventually finds her and they fall in love. There’s just one problem: Rajan has been betrothed from birth to someone else.
Babu Salim, Rajan’s grandfather, is the link between the colonialists and the young couple. A native of Punjab, he arrives in Kenya to work for the British on the railroad. This project is being overseen by McDonald who takes against Babu after an altercation between laborers and bosses. From then on, McDonald finds any excuse to mistreat Babu and at one stage manages to incriminate him for fathering Reverend Turnbull’s new ward.
Nevertheless, social change is afoot as independence looms. Once the railway is completed, Babu becomes a successful businessman while McDonald has to face down the African locals who are keen to reclaim their land. And when Rajan brings Mariam home to meet his family, the long-buried secrets of the past are finally unearthed.
Author Peter Kimani adopts a light, satirical tone while managing to convey the very real hardship suffered by those who built the railway. The existence of the Jacaranda Lake Elementaita Lodge near modern-day Nakuru, a ranch built by British settler Lord Galbraith Cole on whom McDonald was possibly modelled, anchors the story in uncomfortable reality too.
Despite the novel being named for the hotel, it is actually a story about the railway and the racial hierarchies enforced in its creation. Kimani frequently uses the image of the tracks as a metaphor for that power structure: the different nationalities are running in the same direction but utterly separate.
Kimani’s depiction of the racial groups is equally stark, sometimes verging on the stereotypical. The British rulers are invariably bad or mad while the subject Africans are shown as naïve, corrupt or just plain intransigent. Not even the Indians get off lightly. Kimani is at pains to show that, despite migrating to a new society, they have imported all their “prejudices of caste and religion” with them.
Hope lies therefore in the younger generation. A neat ending would have seen Rajan and Mariam happily married and in control of the Jakaranda with all the sins of the fathers forgiven. Kimani, however, chooses a more uncertain conclusion, leaving the reader with a meditation by Babu on the failure of Indians to integrate in their new world, either by embracing African culture or being absorbed into British society.
It’s left to Rajan to voice a preferable approach: “I want to be more than just an Indian. I want to be a Kenyan immersed in other cultures.” The alternative is unattractive, Kimani tell us. In keeping one’s distance, we become mere passers-by, glimpsed briefly from a train window and then forgotten.